Sunday, November 18, 2007

Social Justice for Migrant Workers

The abuse of migrant workers and domestic servants is often a prevalent topic of discussion in reference to the Persian Gulf countries. While physical abuse occurs in the worst cases, it is often the cheating of these workers of their salary and benefits that is more wide-spread. Domestic servants who work in the private homes of Arabs and expats are female migrant workers from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, or the Philippines. Their tasks range from cleaning and cooking to childcare. Although they are involved intimately in maintaining the affairs of house, they are often ignored and treated and not given due consideration as full human beings. There is even a website offering domestic labor service that allows a person to search for a suitable servant based on nationality and religion

Domestic servants are brought to Kuwait from their home countries on a certain type of visa that only permits them to work as domestic servants. Agencies act as the middle-men to bring the workers and arrange their visas and to find them employers. Normally, the domestic servant signs for a two-year contract to work in a person’s home at a salary of about $160 with food and clothing paid for by the employer. After the two years she is entitled for a paid airline ticket by her employer to return to her home country for a vacation.

One particular story I heard recently smacked of avarice. A non-Kuwaiti Arab couple both of whom were doctors had been nice to their maid. Yet as the two year mark approached and the maid wanted to travel, the employers began changing their attitude towards her and telling her that she could only travel for less than the normally granted time. Also, the maid was seeking to be released by her employers so that she could find more profitable work in a store or restaurant. A release requires the employers to sign a document releasing the domestic servant from their employment in order for her to change her visa status so that she may work in more well-paid jobs in a store or restaurant. However, the employers of this maid, who lived a comfortable life and were well-off, attempted to extort money from her by demanding that she pay them an exorbitant amount such as a $1,000 for them to sign the release paper. She refused and was returned to the agency before her two year contract ended allowing her employers to forego the expenditure of her rightfully deserved plane ticket per the stipulations of the contract.

Though it is unfortunate that such incidents occur and there is little recourse for justice for the domestic servants, even in the extreme cases of violence and rape (see this Al-Jazeera English news report that highlights two Indonesian servants that were abused by their sponsors in Kuwait), there is hope that there is a growing awareness among Kuwaitis for the need to redress these abuses and promote social justice. The granddaughter of the current Amir of Kuwait, Bibi Nasser al-Sabah, is involved in the Social Work Society of Kuwait which provides various forms of assistance to migrant workers such as helping detained workers return to their home countries, helping them get medical care, and promoting reforms in the labor laws. She runs a blog promoting social justice for migrant workers.

It is important to note that the problem of domestic worker abuse is not restricted to the Gulf Arabs but is rather a widespread problem stretching from Africa to India to East Asia the roots of which lie in a traditional mentality veiled from the light of education. I remember watching a program in the US that documented abuse of African domestic servants in the US by their African immigrant employers. Though seemingly slow, but yet surely, the light of education will pierce the veils of ignorance as humanity acknowledges the oneness of mankind and the implications thereof.

The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.” –Baha’u’llah

Friday, November 9, 2007

Islamist Member of Parliament visits AUK

The American University in Kuwait is viewed as a bastion of liberalism that attracts the most liberal-minded and the children of some of the wealthiest Kuwaitis. There you will find male and female students sporting the latest styles at what seems to be almost any expense. Thus, when Kuwait’s probably most well-known conservative Islamist Member of Parliament, Dr. Walid Tabtabaie, came to AUK on Sunday, 4 Nov, to speak about the Kuwaiti constitution on the pretense of a lecture entitled “Serving the Community,” it was a surprise to many.

Dr. Tabtabaie seems to be a young looking man in his forties. He sports a jet black beard and noticeably short dishdasha (the white dress of local men), both signs of a strict fundamentalist or literal understanding of Islam. He received his PhD in Islamic Law from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the leading bastion of Sunni Islam education. Al-Azhar has been in operation for a little over a thousand years but ironically it started out as a Shi’ite institution under the Fatimids.

The session started out politely with an explanation of the verities and virtues of the Kuwaiti constitution. But after Tabtabaie had finished his talk, the session was opened to the real and unofficial topic of discussion which was the lack of exercise of personal freedoms such as freedom of press, the view that women should not be playing football, and the preoccupation with separating boys and girls in universities and schools. Students were allowed to ask questions and I was surprised by the number that were out-spoken. There was especially one student who seemed to give his own speech in railing against the state for I think the detention of two journalists recently before asking his question. The problem of listening to conversations in Arabic is that I understand the main point but don’t often pick up on the details.

It was certainly an interesting session and an illustration of the main tension in the Middle East, tradition versus modernity which in this case was played out by the actors of Islam and liberalism.

There were a few questions to Tabtabaie about why women shouldn’t be playing football by some of the AUK female players as he is against that. It came to the point where he said that his reasoning was because women’s uniforms was too light, meaning that it was too revealing, and that that was simply his opinion.

But the most interesting scene was at the end when the organizer of the session shared that her favorite section of the constitution was freedom of thought or belief at which one point someone commented how can that be when the parliament wants to limit people's freedom, with the example given of Tabtabaie’s opinion that women playing football is immoral. Then Tabtabaie asked for the constitution, turn a few pages and read the section that stated that the state of Kuwait is based on Islam and Sharia which he explained meant freedom of thought was bound within that stricture. It was a nice encapsulation of the tension in Kuwaiti and Arab society between tradition and progress, religion and modernity.

The Persian Gulf and the Environment

I recently just watched the documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” by Al Gore and found it quite moving and well-produced. He brings together various pieces of evidences for global warming into a stunning and compelling presentation. As a Fulbrighter living in Kuwait, I wonder if the message of the film, that global warming is a serious and real phenomenon that requires immediate attention, is understood by the people of the Gulf Arab states.

I remember being shocked and appalled by the blatant wasteful consumerism when first arriving to Kuwait. I think it would be safe to say that just by observing the types of cars on the roads that Kuwaitis have any other country beat for the highest per capita ownership of Hummers. It is disgraceful and quite frankly revolting that the people in the Gulf in general wastefully spend their money to the detriment of the environment at this critical hour on large, bulky vehicles that are unnecessary and consume large amounts of gas. Yes, gasoline is cheap in the Gulf, but that should not be an excuse to buy a Hummer or SUV. In Syria, a much poorer country where I was studying Arabic, I was told there were only 4 Hummers in the entire city of 6 million whereas in Kuwait with a population of 3 million you will see just driving through the streets on a normal day at least 4 hummers.

While most of the pollution contributing to global warming is undoubtedly from the US, the recent development in the Middle East means that this region in the future will have a larger share in the pollution as new high rise buildings and luxury hotels are built, more cars are added to the streets, and new desalination and power plants are built to run the redeveloped and expanded cities. Indeed, already global warming has had its effects in Kuwait. When my mother was growing up in Kuwait 50 years ago, the weather was much cooler and some people used to sleep on the roofs of their houses in the summer. However today, average temperatures are higher during the day and evening so that it would not be as comfortable sleeping outside on a summer night. I read that average temperatures in May this year were the highest on record.

It does not surprise me considering how much heat is being produced by the power and desalination plants, the AC units and cars. I remember standing in a building overlooking a desalination plant and noticed that so much heat was coming out of one of the exhaust towers which I could tell from the air above it that was superheated giving a hazy, blurry image when looking at it. Additionally, because power is so cheap in Kuwait due to government subsidization, some homes and buildings are so cooled in summer that it is cold inside and require the wearing of a light jacket when temperatures outside are between 45-50C. Thus, due to the wasteful use of electricity on AC, Kuwait has experienced brownouts and this summer the government organized a massive campaign to make people aware to conserve electricity. There were electric meters displayed during programs on TV indicating the percentage of output being consumed and signs along the streets, especially very large ones on the way to the airport, reminding people to conserve electricity and lower the AC and turn off the lights before traveling.

It seems Arabs are unaware of the seriousness of global warming. The marine ecosystems of the Gulf have already been ravaged and coral communities destroyed. Diving in one particular area I saw a sea of sea urchins that had destroyed the coral in the area. Additionally, in speaking to a professor in Bahrain focusing on the marine life, he frankly stated that financial interests grossly outweigh a desire to preserve and protect environment. Hence the leaders of the Gulf countries are so quick to reclaim land such as for new business and luxury housing developments in Bahrain and the Emirates.

It’s safe to say that the people here and in other Arab countries rarely think about environmental interests. I wonder if they are simply are not conscious of it. People are so easy to throw their refuse into the streets. In Damascus and Aleppo when I went to sightseeing points to take in city views, there were piles of trash below where people would sit. I remember clearly in Aleppo a group of two or three adolescent girls sitting to the right of where I was standing throwing their empty soda cans and a plastic bag of trash on to the slight drop off in front of them. I do not understand why there such little respect among Arabs for the environment. Why is it so difficult for them to throw their trash in marked receptacles?

In Kuwait, the lack of car for the environment is on display when one goes to some of the beaches. One can often find plastic bags, bottles, cans, batteries, and once I found a small piece of carpet. Even when I went on a boating trip to a popular island of the mainland were there numerous clearly marked receptacles not far from the beach, I still found refuse along the beach and floating in the water. It seems it was too inconvenient for the Kuwaitis to gather their refuse and walk the 10 meters to deposit it in the waste bin. Such is the environmental degradation and apathy that I no longer desire to go to the beaches in Kuwait and witness their spoilage. Of course there are private, well-kept beaches but they are not as easy to access. Additionally, what is ironic is that a Kuwaiti I spoke with working as a director in one of the government departments tasked with monitoring fishing noted that Kuwaitis when they travel to Europe are aware of the rules against littering and abide them whereas the same person is more likely to litter in their country when they return home.

Another sign that today’s Gulf Arab leaders do not give sufficient consideration to the environment is the wasteful manner in which they spend their resources. Take for example the Emirates. The emirate of Dubai already has a large, established international airline. However, the rulers of neighboring emirates felt the need to start their own airlines to spur economic growth in their emirates which is understandable since you want airlines to bring tourists. Yet wouldn’t a much cheaper, more effective, and environmentally friendly solution be to develop high speed rail service between the major cities of the emirates. After all, when Dubai is only a 20 min drive to Sharjah, an hour drive to Abu Dhabi, and a 45 min drive to Ras Al-Khaimah, a high speed rail service connecting Dubai’s airport with the other emirates would be the ideal and practical solution rather than to have a country with 4 national airlines. While Dubai established Emirates Airways in 1985, Abu Dhabi started Etihad airways in 2003, Air Arabia was founded in Sharjah in 2003, and Ras Al-Khaimah’s RAK Airways is set to launch later this year.

Does a country as small as the Emirates with a population of 4.5-5 million people in real need of 4 airlines based in 4 separate emirates with the associated redundancy in infrastructure (i.e. airports) needed to support them? Is it greed that is driving the leaders of the emirates to establish unnecessary airlines while a rail system would be just as sufficient and with the added benefit of reducing traffic on the Emirates jammed roads, a growing problem?

I hope that the next generation of Gulf Arabs will be more conscious in their planning and preservation of the environment and not succumb to greed and materialism for the Earth is groaning under the oppression of the negligent and unconcsious.